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What is an "Extinction Burst" and what does it have to do with my kid's sleep?



Can you think of a time when your child(ren) wanted something so badly they screamed bloody murder for it? I have two kids and I can name SOOOOOO many times where my kids went off the rails – sometimes for understandable reasons and other times it’s for things I don’t get!


No one likes being told no – or not given what they want. I mean, do you like it? Of course not. But I can also guess that, as a parent, you have had to tell your child no (for whatever reason). I know my kids would choose to have Fruit Snacks every night for dinner if they could…but that is not something I am ok with so I have to tell them no. I don’t really LIKE telling my kids no - I want to give them the world!! But candy for dinner is not ok with me.

Brain Development


The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that is right behind the forehead, is in charge of regulating our thoughts and emotions, impulse control, creativity and perseverance (among a few other things). And this part of the brain is not fully developed until your 20s – yes, you read that right. So, it goes without saying that babies, toddlers, and older kids (and young adults!) don’t have the pre-frontal cortex development to support not getting what they want. They biologically don’t know how to not have what they want. And learning how to come to grips with this is another skill to learn like learning how to read or how to talk.


So what does this have to do with sleep? Excellent question.


The work I do with families is simple behavior modification – that is, changing the way something has habitually been done or reinforced.


Usually, with babies, it is changing how they fall asleep such as going from being rocked to sleep to not being rocked any longer, and, in most toddler cases, it is learning how to fall asleep without the parent laying next to them.


Routines and Boundaries


Boundaries help children (and all humans!) feel safe and secure. We love being able to predict things. Predictable routines and boundaries can create a safe space and who wouldn’t want that! As adults, we have established routines which help create a sense of “normalcy” which is usually predictable and helps us understand what is next.


So making a change into your routine or habit can really cause some upset. Adults and children are no different in that regard.


If you want to make a change in your child’s sleeping habits, it is likely going to be met with push back aka “protest.” This is normal and expected - younger babies will protest in the form of crying because this is the communication skill that they have, while older children, especially toddlers, will test our boundaries even further and have the added development of both motor and vocabulary skills.


And when they test us, regardless of age, there are two outcomes: 1) your child protests and tantrums and you give them what they want (no judgement here because I have done this MANY times!!) and 2) your child protests and tantrums but you hold your boundary regardless of how ugly it gets.


Choose your Own Adventure


This is like a choose your own adventure – because the choice here can affect what happens next as well as what happens in the future. Let’s use my Fruit Snack example (because that actually happened at our house).


Option 1 – you give them what they want.


In my case, I gave my daughter the Fruit Snacks for dinner after what seemed like an eternity of tears and screaming. I desperately did not want her baby sister to also freak out, which was the next domino.


Ok, so what did this teach her? This taught her my breaking point. She just learned what it takes for me to cave and give in. So the next night when she asked for Fruit Snacks and I said no, she went straight to defcon 47 – significant less ramp up time because she expected to give in with that level of tantrum. This was a learned behavior based on my previously set expectations and response.


This is not ideal but sometimes it is unavoidable. If you fall into this trap, you are not a bad parent!! And option 2 is really hard!!


Option 2: You hold your boundary.

In my case, I keep my “No” to Fruit Snacks for dinner.


The screaming and protesting gets ugly for a few more minutes then…it stops. I validate her feelings of disappointment/sadness/anger of not getting Fruit Snacks for dinner, we hug it out and repair our disagreement, and we have baked chicken and broccoli as planned (which she devours). Will she still ask for Fruit Snacks the next night? Probably but the whining will be less because she knows I mean no when I say “no!”


The Extinction Burst


In option 2, something called an “extinction burst” occurred. An extinction burst occurs when a behavior that has been previously reinforced suddenly stops being reinforced.


Let’s use this in sleep: When a baby is used to receiving a certain response for a particular behavior, and that response is suddenly removed, the baby will increase the intensity and frequency of that behavior in an attempt to get what they want. With sleep, the reinforced behavior is usually rocking, shushing, nursing to sleep, or parent presence that they’re accustomed to.


Extinction bursts can occur in a variety of situations, from sleep training to weaning from breastfeeding. They can be particularly challenging for parents to navigate, as it can be difficult to tell if the baby is seeking attention or if they’re genuinely upset. No one likes to have their child cry, even if it is for good reason, so it is easier to give in than to hold firm.


However, it’s important to understand that extinction bursts are a normal part of a baby’s development and are not a sign that something’s wrong.


So, how can parents cope with these bed/night time extinction bursts?


One word. Consistency.


The Reality


Let’s be real – with extinction bursts, things will likely get worse before they get better. But if you have decided that a particular behavior is no longer acceptable or that a particular reward will no longer be given, it’s crucial to stick to that decision and not give in to your child’s increased efforts to elicit the desired response.


This isn’t going to be easy, I know. The increased intensity of baby’s crying is going to be stressful and occasionally overwhelming, but it is important to remain calm and consistent. Get your partner involved or call in the support team, whether it’s your parents, your in-laws, your friends, or a professional sleep consultant, so that you can take a break when things get to be too much for you.


How long will it take to have extinction bursts to “work?” There is no set time line for extinction bursts. Some babies or children just need a night or perhaps one tantrum/protest to get the point. Others are more strong willed and will push boundaries for a few nights. I find that the strength of attachment to the behavior will determine how long it may take to change it.

And it is also worth noting that this is often not a one time and done situation. Again, that word “consistency” is important. Once you establish your expectations and STICK TO THEM things will get easier! This is a process.


Conclusion


As tough as things may get, don’t forget this one important fact. Extinction bursts are temporary. Good sleep habits are not. Once you’ve come out the other side of this experience, you can look forward to years of your little one sleeping soundly through the night. AND you have learned an incredibly valuable parenting tool to support yourself through those difficult tantrum moments.


If you are ready to have guidance through this process, let's schedule a call so you don't have to go at this blind and on your own!

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